The Drive for Freedom by Manal al-Sharif
I’d like to tell two chapters of my life.
Chapter one begins with the year I was born, in 1979.
In 1979, there was a seige of Mecca. Mecca is the holiest shrine for Muslims in the world. It was seied by extremist Juhayman al-Otaybi and 400 men for two weeks. The authorities had to use heavily armed force to end the seige. The captured men were then beheaded, publicly.
After that, the authorities were very concerned about the rise of militantism in the country. Juhayman’s siege was in protest against the perceived Westernization of the country. It was the 1970s. Saudi Arabia was a newly formed nation, and rapidly changing. This went against the beliefs of the extremists, and they wanted to stop it.
So Saudi authorities quickly moved to rollback some of the liberties that had been granted in recent years. Extremists had long been upset by the gradual loosening of restrictions on women. In the weeks after the seige, women were removed from TV, female authors were removed from bookshelves, cinemas were closed, and music was banned. Seperation of gender was strictly enforced, everywhere, banks, schools, even our own homes.
Petrodollars poured into the country, and into the budgets of extremist groups. They used it to spread their mission around the world. Many preached hatred. The moral police, the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, were given free rein in Saudi society.
They had beheaded a monster, but they had embraced his message. Saudi authorities moved to remove all discussions of Juhayman, his was a name that struck fear into the hearts of Saudis and Muslims all over the world.
During Ramadan, when I was performing Hajj with my mother, they lift up the cloak that covers it. On the side, we saw a hole in the wall. It was a hole from a bullet from the seige of Juhayman. For me, that hole was a hole in time. And a hole into which we kept going backwards in my country.
In the 1980s, the new extremists were very powerful in Saudi Arabia, promoting their ideas. They called for jihad in Afghanistan, and called to remove any non-Muslim from the Arabian peninsula. A 22 year old man was among these fighters in Afghanistan. His name was Osama Bin Laden. Those fighters were our heros.
Women in the Sahwa time, or the 1980s, were one of the main subjects that the extremists used to talk about. Women were always talked about as the seductive truth. If I leave the house, and something bad happens, it is my fault. Men cannot trust their instincts.
For them, I was ‘auwra. ‘Auwra is the sinful part of the body, which cannot be disclosed. My body was ‘auwra, my voice was ‘auwra, my name was ‘auwra. We women were called mother, sister, or daughter. We did not even have IDs with our pictures. We were voiceless, faceless, and nameless. We were just invisible.
In November 6th, 1990, 47 women protested by driving. And afterwards, a fatwa came. The Ministry of the Interior issued an edict: women were not allowed to drive in this country. They lost their jobs, they lost their dignity. And another taboo was created. The first was Juhayman, the second was driving.
Something else happened in that first chapter of my life.
On June 25, 1996, there was a bombing of Khobar Tower. 372 people were injured that day. 20 people were killed. I remember my mother, when she saw the pictures, she gasped. And she said, ‘Juhayman is back’.
I was only 17, but I did not sympathize. I was brainwashed, I was a product of a terrorist at that time. I was really an extremist. I used to cover from top to head. They told us that it was sinful to draw portraits of people, so I took all my portraits and I burned them. And meanwhile, I was burning inside. This was not fair.
In the year 2000, the internet was introduced to Saudi Arabia. It was our first window to the outside world, and I was very curious. I started talking to other people, raising questions. I began to realize how very small the box I was living in was. I started losing my phobia of having my pure beliefs polluted.
Do you remember the first time you listened to music?
I remember. I was 21 years old. The first song I listened to was Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely, by the Backstreet Boys. And the music was so pure, so innocent.
And that day, I realized how lonely I really was, in the world I had isolated myself in.
Another turning point in my life was 9/11. It was probably a turning point for many people in this room. They said it was God’s punishment to America. I was confused, and didn’t know how to feel. Then on the news, I saw this picture. It was of a man, who threw himself from the towers to escape the fire. I couldn’t sleep that night.
I thought, no religion on earth should be like this.
When Al-Qaeda took responsibility for the attacks, I realized my heros were nothing but bloody terrorists.
After 9/11, Saudi Arabia suffered from a series of attacks. They started issuing us IDs. For the first time, we were recognized as citizens in our own country.
Then there is a bit of a gap between chapters in my life. I guess not that much happens in Saudi Arabia! [laughs]
Then a group of women, we called for a day of driving on social media. And I recorded two videos. I used my face, my voice, my real name. I used to be ashamed of who I am, as a woman. I’m not anymore.
That video, when it was posted, received nearly 700,000 views. And shortly after, I was arrested.
There were protests in the country. Facebook pages sprang up, calling for my punishment. And others, with women, threatening to throw their shoes at men.
And I didn’t realize until after I was released how many people were inspired by something so simple, something so many of us do, every single day around the world.
And there were rumors, and stories, about me, after I left jail. That was the hardest thing after I left jail: not facing what I did, but facing the things I did not do.
Afterwards, there was a day we organized. Some 100 women drove that day, and not a single one was arrested. We had broken the taboo.
Later, I saw Mona Eltahawy in Egypt. She asked, ‘What’s your secret?’ I said, ‘They messed with the wrong woman.’
We have started a movement now in Saudi Arabia. We call it the Saudi Woman’s Spring.
I believe in full citizenship for women. A child cannot be free if his mother is not free. A husband cannot be free if his wife is not free. The society is nothing if women are nothing. Freedom starts within.
Here, I am free. But when I go back to Saudi Arabia, the struggle has just begun.
The struggle is not about driving a car. It is about being in the driver’s seat of our destiny.